Obituary: Malcolm Hardee

Patron sinner of alternative comedy, he was renowned for his outrageous stunts

Comedian Malcolm Hardee, who has died aged 55, was a familiar figure on Britain's alternative comedy circuit, but it was as much his offstage antics that made him the icon of that anarchic movement. Most famously, in 1986, he stole Freddie Mercury's 40th birthday cake and donated it to a home for older people, shortly before the police arrived to search his house for crumbs.

Hardee was born in Lewisham, the eldest son of Frank and Joan Hardee, and spent his first two years in an orphanage while his mother was in hospital with tuberculosis. His father sailed tugs on the Thames. He was educated at three south-east London schools - St Stephen's Church of England primary, Colfe's grammar and Sedgehill comprehensive. Expelled from all three, he drifted into petty crime.

"When it suited me, I would claim I'd fallen in with a bad lot, but the truth was that I was the bad lot," he observed in the autobiography he wrote with John Fleming in 1996. During his teens and twenties, he did time in various prisons, borstals and detention centres for car theft and burglary. "Prison is like mime or juggling," he reflected. "A tragic waste of time."

In 1978, after completing a prison sentence for cheque fraud, Hardee teamed up with the comedian Martin Soan in an adult Punch & Judy show, which they toured around the west country. Eventually they switched to sketches, including a nude balloon dance and a Shakespearean skit that Hardee had written in Ford open prison. By the time the Comedy Store opened in Soho in 1979, ushering in a new wave of alternative comedy, Hardee's troupe, The Greatest Show On Legs, were already old hands.

They appeared on TV shows such as The Tube, and even played Just For Laughs, Montreal's international comedy festival. However, it was at the Edinburgh festival fringe that Hardee performed his most celebrated stunts. In 1983, he gatecrashed another comedian's one-man show, naked, on a tractor. In 1989, with a little help from fellow comic Arthur Smith, he wrote a rave review of his own show, and submitted it to the Scotsman, under the byline of one of the Scotsman's own reviewers. The paper printed Hardee's self-penned rave, and his show did brisk business. Hardee was also a frequent performer at the Glastonbury festival, where he once did a turn with his testicles daubed in luminous paint.

Between festivals, Hardee played cameo roles in TV comedies such as Blackadder and The Comic Strip, and ran his own comedy club, the Tunnel, which he had opened at the southern end of the Blackwall Tunnel in 1984; it acquired a fearsome reputation as a graveyard for aspiring standups. Hardee compered it in typically idiosyncratic style, performing a genital impression of Charles de Gaulle.

Yet Hardee also had a sharp eye for comic talent. He managed Jerry Sadowitz, helped to nurture the careers of rising stars like Harry Enfield, and encouraged Jo Brand (a former girlfriend) to go on stage. He also worked as a tour manager for his friend and neighbour, Jools Holland. In 1987, he stood for parliament in the Greenwich byelection, as a candidate for the Rainbow Alliance Beer, Fags and Skittles party, polling 174 votes.

When the Tunnel closed, Hardee decamped in 1991 to Up The Creek - a slightly better behaved venue in nearby Greenwich, which Hardee described as "the Tunnel with A-levels". Hardee left Up The Creek several years ago, but the club is still going strong, and now boasts a splendid mural, depicting Hardee surrounded by a dozen of the famous comedians he worked with, in an impudent recreation of the Last Supper. In 2003, again with John Fleming, Hardee edited Sit-Down Comedy, an acclaimed collection of prose by comics such as John Hegley and Stewart Lee.

For the last few years of his life, Hardee ran a floating pub, the Wibbly Wobbly, on a barge moored in Rotherhithe, and lived on a houseboat, the Sea Sovereign, on the Thames. He was reported missing on Monday, and police divers found his body in the river on Wednesday.

He leaves a son, Frank, and a daughter, Poppy, from his relationship with Philippa (Pip) Hazelton, and his wife Jane. On the day his death was announced, Hardee's friends and family converged on the Wibbly Wobbly to pour a measure of his favourite tipple, rum and Coke, into the river where he felt so at home. For alternative comedy's patron sinner, who has been called a millennial Falstaff and a south London Rabelais, it was a suitably irreverent farewell.

Jon Ronson writes: On my first night in London, aged 17, I joined the audience of the Tunnel club, where I was beguiled - and urinated on - by Malcolm Hardee. Later, I approached him on the street. We chatted. Then he suddenly mumbled, "Uh oh."

Within moments a furious woman was frenziedly whacking him over the head with an umbrella. I walked away, turned back, and watched Malcolm effortlessly recharm her.

A few months later I was fast asleep on the floor of a flat in Edinburgh when I awoke to find a completely naked Malcolm Hardee standing over me.

"Urrrup!" he said cheerfully. I fell asleep again.

The next morning he drove me into town. The police pulled us over.

"Uh oh," he said.

"What?" I said.

"It's not my car. It's got no MOT, no insurance, and I'm not allowed to drive it," he said. "Don't worry."

He jumped out, adjusted his Eric Morecambe glasses, and greeted the police with his usual "Urrrup!"

I couldn't hear what he said, but before long they were all roaring with laughter and slapping each other on the back. Malcolm got back in and drove off.

A couple of years ago Malcolm phoned me out of the blue. "Urrrup!"

He invited me on a day trip up the Thames. By now he had, against all odds, married a completely lovely and sane woman. His boat was unbelievably rickety, but Malcolm seemed entirely at peace, sailing away, a faraway look in his eyes, pointing out all the things he loved - disused riverside factories and tyre yards.

"Just look at that," he kept saying. "Just look at that."

I think Malcolm would have felt cheated if he had died anywhere other than in the Thames.

· Malcolm Hardee, comedian and entrepreneur, born January 5 1950; died January 31 2005.


William Cook

The GuardianTramp

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